If you hate the mainstream media, March has been magnificent for you.
This month, Playboy magazine made Helen Thomas cry. Yes, Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent who grilled U.S. presidents at press conferences until you could hear their teeth grind from the podium.
This iron-willed woman fought the good-old-boy system to become the first female president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. But the 90-year-old Thomas sobbed like a little girl while telling Playboy how she’s been maligned by other journalists this past year.
When interviewer David Hochman asked Thomas how her obituary will read, she replied through tears…
Oh, I know what they’re going to say: “anti-Semite.” I know damn well what they’re going to say because they have their print, they have their ink. They don’t give a damn about the truth. They have to have it their way, and they’ll be writing my obituary.
Thomas has been skewered since last May, when she said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and then added in December, “Congress, the White House and Hollywood, Wall Street are owned by the Zionists. No question.”
A crying shame
A few weeks after Thomas’ second controversial blast, the nation’s largest journalism organization got rid of its lifetime achievement award, which it named after her in 2000. I’ve heard she cried about that, too.
The Society of Professional Journalists “retired” its Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award under some very un-journalistic circumstances – like not asking its 8,000 members what they thought, not telling them what it did till two weeks later, and never going straight to the source.
That’s right, SPJ’s leaders never spoke to Thomas, instead relying on media reports to make their decision. Apparently, that’s what really upset Thomas.
But when they got blowback for both their decision and the way they made it, SPJ leaders cried that other journalists misunderstood them.
“As I read the attacks and innuendo that are migrating through Facebook and the Internet about this issue, I have come to feel bad for every single leader that was asked to make this decision,” SPJ executive director Joe Skeel wrote on his blog – a whopping 3,000-word post, or almost an entire newspaper page covered in text. “Some are calling them ‘cowards’ who have bowed to outside pressure.”
Oh no, journalists are opining that their leaders are cowards? Has Skeel – or Thomas for that matter – ever read what their peers have called presidents Bush and Obama?
Anyone who’s ever been burned by the media, ambushed in an interview, or had their views truncated by sound bites should savor the Thomas-SPJ dispute.
I know I am.
Two out of three ain’t bad
I’m a Jew, a journalist, and a former SPJ board member – and I booked Thomas as a speaker just two weeks ago.
In mid-March, I organized a college media convention that brought 1,200 student journalists to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Thomas spoke for 20 minutes about her illustrious career, 15 minutes about her controversial comments, and then answered questions from students for another 20 minutes.
It all went swimmingly, and even resulted in a bit of its own news coverage. I must admit, even as a journalist, I learned a lot more from and about Thomas when she was unfiltered by my professional peers.
I certainly didn’t agree with her opinions. I find her position on the Middle East simplistic. “Go home” is not much of a political philosophy – not for Jews living in Israel, nor for us living on Native American soil.
But as a Jew who was bar mitzvahed on Masada, I didn’t find her opinions so offensive or unreasoned that I winced or withdrew. In fact, I’m less offended by Thomas’ opinion of Jews than I am about SPJ’s opinion of journalists.
When, as a courtesy, I notified the SPJ board that I had asked Thomas to speak and offered them free admittance, past SPJ president Kevin Smith emailed back, “this interview is a farce” if I didn’t allow himself or another SPJ leader to also speak.
When I refused to let SPJ share the podium, Smith referenced a Huffington Post column I had written.
“I’m fed up with your blogs,” Smith wrote to me and the board, “and your constant defiling of this board of volunteers who put in a lot of time and effort only to get publicly assailed by you.”
You make it a habit of picking fights with leaders and board members in this organization. You took your swipes at us in the Huffington Post.
Nothing I’ve written about SPJ falls outside the bounds of how traditional journalists criticize leaders in other spheres of our society. A “constant defiling”? I challenge you to find such a blog post from me.
Smith never responded, although some other board members did – privately. They agreed Smith was the worst kind of journalist: the hypocrite who can dish it out but can’t take it. Then again, journalists who hide behind anonymity aren’t without hypocrisy, either.
Surviving the new cycle
This story isn’t going to die any time soon. SPJ opens its annual convention in New Orleans on Sept. 25, and more than a few SPJers are campaigning to restore the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. That could lead to a Mid-East-like democratic uprising on the floor of the convention, where “delegates” can, once a year, overrule their leaders.
I’ve been probed and recruited by both sides, who seek my opinion on the matter since I have yet to make it public. Well, here it is, in all its anticlimactic-ness…
I have no qualms about dropping a controversial journalist’s name from what’s supposed to be an uncontroversial award. As I’ve written before, my big problem is the un-journalistic and un-democratic way SPJ leaders arrived at their decision.
So I plan to go to New Orleans with a compromise proposal: Like all good journalists, let’s look ahead and not back. The Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award is dead and buried. Let’s create a new one: The Helen Thomas Free Speech Award.
“The Society takes unpopular stances often when it comes to free speech issues,” SPJ president Hagit Limor wrote on her blog back in November. “Just this year, we held our noses and signed on to defend the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest near the funerals of veterans who die in combat, despite the church’s repugnant use of offensive signs like ‘God Hates Fags.’ The church claims God kills soldiers as punishment for gay Americans. … That’s not necessarily the popular choice. It’s just the one the Society has to make to protect against any incursions on free speech.”
Thomas’ opinions are certainly no more “repugnant” than those of the Westboro Baptist Church – and I should know, since the day before Thomas spoke, I booked Westboro leader Margie Phelps at our New York City convention. Once again, hearing controversial comments without a media filter was truly enlightening.
“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech,” conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz once said. “Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”
Just once, I’d like to see journalists apply this lesson to themselves.